Informed intellect and unformed character

When Oswald Chambers was serving as a chaplain with the British Army in Egypt during World War I, a young soldier approached him with disdain in his eyes. His words to the chaplain were almost an assault: “I can’t stand religious people,” he sneered.

In a confidential tone, Chambers responded, “Neither can I.” He then took the young soldier aside where they could speak privately and within an hour or so the anti-religious soldier had been converted to Christianity through the instrumentality of the anti-religious chaplain.

Oswald Chambers’ most famous work, “My Utmost for His Highest,” is one of the best-selling devotional books of all time. It was first published in 1924, seven years after Chambers’ death in Egypt, and has never been out of print since. It reveals throughout the perspective of the unique chaplain who admitted to a young soldier that he couldn’t stand religious people.

Chambers approaches life from a different angle than most people, sees truths that others miss, and expresses them in his own inimitable way. Many readers of “My Utmost” go through it year after year, and gain new insights each time around.

Recently a friend sent me a quote from “My Utmost” that is classic Chambers: “We are apt to think that everything that happens to us is to be turned into useful teaching; it is to be turned into something better than teaching, viz. into character. We shall find that the spheres God brings us into are not meant to teach us something but to make us something.”

Of course Chambers turned the things that happened to him into teaching – he went around the world teaching the truths that he had learned from his experiences. But he understood that teaching, if it is to be effective, must proceed from the character of the teacher, not merely from his intellect. Intellect reaches intellect; character reaches life.

Too much teaching in the modern church proceeds from intellect, rather than from character (and I do not exempt myself from the charge). The result has been a church of informed intellects but unformed character.

This is nothing new. St. Paul wrote the ancient Corinthians: “‘We all possess knowledge,’ as you say.” That’s certainly a good thing. But he goes on to warn, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Spiritual instruction that reaches the mind but not the life bloats the intellect while leaving the character undeveloped. In other words, it produces spiritual bobbleheads.

What is character? Character is what a person is poised to do (or not do) in a given set of circumstances before he or she has time to think about it. As such, character is an instilled readiness to act in a particular way. One person may gossip when he hears about his boss’s marital problems while another may pray. Each is acting from his developed character.

Character is, to put it simply, who we really are. Understanding that helps us make sense of Jesus’s daunting admonition: “I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.” We think that our careless words should be excused, but Jesus understood that it is precisely our careless, unplanned words (and actions) that reveal who we really are – that is, that reveal our character.

How is character formed? Character is formed through repetitive actions. An experience – no matter how glorious it is – does not form character, though it may open a door to the kinds of actions that will. Some people collect experiences, the way a friend of mine collects dolls, but experiences do not transform character, even when they are genuine experiences of the divine,          Character is not only formed through repetitive actions, it can – thank God – be transformed through repetitive actions, intentionally undertaken in accordance with the truth. Perhaps this is why Jesus told would-be followers to take up their cross daily and follow him. Taking up their cross once would be an experience, but taking it up daily forms character.

First Published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, February 1, 2014

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